GOALKEEPERS are supposed to be like fine wines, improving with age and experience. Gary Sprake, who has died suddenly following a heart attack, didn’t follow this template – he was a child prodigy. He played rugby at school in Swansea, well, he was born and raised in South Wales, one of a very large family. Legend has it he was filling-in in goals for a local team when he was spotted by a Leeds United scout and whisked to Yorkshire, following in the path of the great John Charles.
Like Charles, he quickly broke through, making his first team debut, against Southampton, in 1962, when still only 17. He held his place and on 20 November, 1963, aged 18 years, 231 days, he became the youngest goalkeeper to be capped by Wales, when he played against Scotland at Hampden. Scotland won 2-1, John White and Denis Law getting the goals.
This was the first of 37 caps Sprake would win for the Red Dragons. He proved himself the best Welsh stopper since the great Jack Kelsey and is still viewed as one of the country’s finest-ever keepers alongside Kelsey, Neville Southall and the great Edwardian eccentric Leigh Roose.
Don Revie was redefining Leeds as Sprake broke through and he was a key member of the team that won the Second Division championship in 1964, before going on to be a fixture at the top of the First Division for the next decade.
In all he played more than 500 games for Leeds between 1962 and 1973 – keeping more than 200 clean sheets. He was first-choice for most of these years, but he did come under pressure from the young David Harvey towards the end of his tenure, eventually, when displaced by the Scottish internationalist, moving to Birmingham City in an effort to regain regular first-team football and regain the Welsh place he had lost when displaced at his club by Harvey.
He was a superb goalkeeper, capable of some fantastic saves, such as during his match-saving performance against the Hungarians Ferencvaros, as Leeds won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1968, or against Arsenal in the League Cup final the same season.
However, he was criticised for one or two “howlers”. At a time when live football was rarely seen on TV, it was Sprake’s misfortune to make his errors when the cameras were there.
The first was at Anfield, in 1967 when, in the middle of throwing the ball out, he noticed a Liverpool player closing-down the intended recipient, stalled his throw and the ball flew into the net for a bizarre own goal. He might have got away with it, but the Liverpool stadium announcer put on the Des O’Connor record Careless Hands at the end of the half-time break. The Kop picked up on this and serenaded Sprake throughout the second half.
In 1969 he joined Springburn-born goalkeeper Allan Ross at Carlisle United, where he reacted to rough treatment from Bobby Gould by laying the burly striker out with one punch, which left Gould with a dislocated jaw. The referee saw the assault, but did not send Sprake off – he had heard Gould swear at him prior to being hit, and opted to book both players.
Then, in the notorious “kicking match” which the 1970 FA Cup Final between Leeds and Chelsea became, he was adjudged to have been at fault in allowing Peter Houseman’s shot to slip through his hands for the first of Chelsea’s two equalisers.
In fairness to Sprake, the rain-soaked Wembley turf cut up badly – the result of a show jumping competition being held on it – and the ball appeared to bobble badly before it reached him.
He sustained a knee injury between the final and the replay at Old Trafford, Harvey stepping in instead.
He fought back to regain the number one jersey, but, increasingly he found himself left out in favour of Harvey, then he fell out with Revie and in 1972-73, his final season with Leeds, he made just one appearance.
When Birmingham City came in with an offer of £100,000 – a then world record fee for a goalkeeper,he was allowed to leave Elland Road, having won one Second Division championship medal, one First Division championship medal, a League Cup-winner’s medal and two Fairs Cup-winner’s medals.
Sadly, he was unable to play consistently at St Andrew’s. He suffered a back injury – a near-fatal blood clot followed, which necessitated spinal fusion surgery – one of seven back operations he underwent, and, aged 30, his football career was over.
He worked for a time as a sales representative, before joining Solihull Borough Council as a training officer, a post he held before having to take early retirement through ill health; his life was blighted by heart problems, which saw him undergo a triple heart by-pass operation and survive a number of heart attacks, prior to the one that killed him.
In 2006 he published a well-received autobiography - Careless Hands – the Forgotten Truth of Gary Sprake, while his contribution to Welsh football during his career and his massive and largely uncredited charity work was marked with a special award in 2009.
However, his rift with Leeds United never healed. He was the one Leeds player of the time not to attend a special evening to say goodbye to the dying Revie, while he controversially was involved in a scandal of alleged match- fixing against his old gaffer.
He was paid by a tabloid newspaper to make the allegations, but, he refused to repeat them under oath in court.
He has never been forgiven by some of his Leeds team mates, or some fans of ‘the Damned United’.
Gary Sprake, whose considerable talents as a golfer were blighted by his back and heart problems, settled in the Birmingham area with Jacqui, his partner of more than 35 years.
His marriage failed, he was pre-deceased by his wife and is survived by Jacqui, daughter Julia and his two surviving sisters and one brother.